How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work?


TikTok is surprisingly addictive.

Ever wonder why?

It all comes down to one word.

Data.

Yes, TikTok has extensive data on its users, and this helps the platform to continuously deliver content that its users love.

Now, as a digital marketer, if you are marketing to Gen-Zers, you might want your business on TikTok. Maybe users will become addicted to your content.

To do that effectively, you must know how the TikTok algorithm works.

In this post, I’ll cover how the TikTok algorithm works so that you can gain massive traction.

But first, I have to clarify something.

Is TikTok a Social Media Platform or a Search Engine?


Now, in case you were wondering why on earth I’m asking this, it’s important to understand that TikTok is a little more complex than a typical social media platform like Facebook or Twitter.

Typical social media platforms deliver content through an ever-changing feed. On these platforms, you generally can’t search for content, or if you can, the search capabilities are severely limited.

The reason is social media platforms don’t have a searchable index.

This means you might be able to search for new content in the platform’s buffers but you can’t search for older content.

The goal of a social media platform is different from that of a search engine. Social media by design is all about engaging with what’s popular or exciting now. A search engine on the other hand is all about being able to find specific content in a database of information.

TikTok acts like a social media platform by populating the latest popular videos in its For You feed, while also offering you a searchable index that allows for historical searches.

This means TikTok is both a social media platform and a search engine.

In this post, I’ll be covering how to get traffic from TikTok’s social media algorithms by exploring how TikTok populates its For You feed. I’ll leave TikTok search and TikTok SEO for another post.

How Does the Tiktok’s Algorithm Work?

In 2020, TikTok published a blog post explaining how your ‘For You’ feed is populated.
For You feed
According to TikTok, the For You page is:

“A stream of videos curated to your interests, making it easy to find content and creators you love … powered by a recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user.”

To achieve that, the algorithms populate ‘For You’ feeds based on the activity of each individual user. This means each person’s feed is unique to their likes and interests.

Now, this might sound simple, but let’s break it down into its various component parts.

The TikTok algorithm has to deeply ‘understand’ its user’s interests. It also has to clearly categorize the content it has in its index in order to match the video content with user interests.

How TikTok Understands Its Users

Firstly, TikTok gathers detailed data on its users based on how they interact with content on the platform.

This means TikTok gathers data on:

  • The content you generate and view
  • The comments and live streams you make
  • Images and audio included in your User Content (including objects and scenery)
  • The existence and location within an image of face and body features and attributes on your User Content
  • The audio, text, and words spoken in your User Content

Added to this, TikTok also gathers demographic data into the mix as well as anything you share on your profile. This means the platform ‘knows’ your age, gender, geo-location, what you had for breakfast (😹), and more.

I’ve not shared the complete list and if you want to understand exactly how detailed TikTok’s user data is, check out their privacy policy. (Although doing that might give you nightmares and you might never log into the app ever again.)

Using this highly specific and detailed user information, TikTok’s algorithms are able to get a clear and accurate picture of your likes and interests.

What’s more, as you use the app, TikTok’s user data grows giving the algorithms a clearer picture of the content you enjoy.

And…

The better the user data, the more potentially addictive the content is.

But, in order to serve relevant content, TikTok needs more data.

It needs to ‘understand’ the topic of each video in its index.

Understanding the Content in TikTok’s Index

Once the algorithms ‘understand’ what a user’s likes and interests are, the algorithms also need to ‘understand’ the topic of each video in its index.

That way it can serve you the most enticing content tailored to your likes and interests.

In order to ‘understand’ a video’s topic, TikTok’s algorithms analyze the video content, including:

  • Hashtags
  • Video descriptions
  • Spoken audio
  • Sounds

With this information, TikTok is able to almost accurately match content to the user.

And that’s the secret to a highly addictive platform.

An algorithm that figures out what its users want and understands its content well enough to fulfill its user’s desires.

Now that we’ve looked at how the algorithm works, let’s take what we’ve understood and apply it to generating traffic to your content.

6 Easy Steps to Gaining TikTok Traffic

Okay, you have the theory. Let’s get practical.
crowd
As we’ve seen, the TikTok algorithm collects large amounts of detailed user data and builds a profile for each user in order to serve personalized videos to their For You feeds.

This means if you want your videos to get massive traffic, you must aim to create content that users love and want to engage with.

Typical engagement metrics include:

  • Clicks
  • Watch times
  • Likes
  • Shares
  • Comments

In other words, you need your content to practically jump off the screen and grab your audience by the lapel.

In order to create highly engaging videos, the first step is to understand your audience.

1. Understand Your Audience

It’s important to note, as a business, you’re looking to make sales or generate leads.

Your social media presence should be designed with this end goal in mind. This means you must understand your buyer’s journey and create your social media around that.

But, I’ll explain how you can create a winning social media strategy in another post.

Instead, in this post, I’m going to just focus on how to understand your target audience in order to get traffic from the TikTok algorithm.

In general, your audience consists of a pocket of people that your business is designed to serve. What they have in common is they all have an itch that your business is designed to scratch.

This could be a common interest or a problem they need to solve.

And having this problem, they have a conversation already going on in their minds. The question is, how do you enter that conversation?

The key is to do a bit of research.

Start your research by finding videos that are trending in your niche.

2. TikTok Audience Research 101 – What’s Trending?

The first step is to know what’s trending. Because as I mentioned above, TikTok’s algorithm favors anything that’s trending.

Trends might include things like popular memes or popular content like challenges. (Remember the ice bucket challenge?)


via GIPHY

Now, it’s important to note that you don’t need to follow every trend on TikTok. Just stick to your niche.

How do you do that?

Simply search common hashtags in your niche and once you see trending videos, start engaging with them. By liking and commenting, TikTok will begin to populate your For You feed with more trending videos in your niche.

Once you have a nice list of trending videos, it’s time for your analysis.

Because…

There are some best practices to follow, but doing your own research will give your much better insights into your own niche and your audience. Also, if you only follow the best practices, your content will start to look like everyone else’s.

Try looking at the videos that get massive views and compare them to the ones that don’t.

Are there common elements that the successful videos all share?

Take your own notes.

You might uncover an insight that your competitors don’t yet know.

Now, that you have your own analysis of trending content in your niche, let’s look at video formats.

3. Video Format

You might notice that many popular videos follow a formula.

The reason is once creators find formats that work for them, they keep doing what works for them. Why recreate the wheel?

Finding formats that your audience loves is half the work done.

Here are some key things to consider:

  • Video length
  • Pacing
  • Text included in the video
  • Music and sound

Once you find some video formats that work for other creators, try those formats on your own videos. You might not get this right immediately, but the more you test this the better your results will be.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

When you find a format that works for your channel, double down and post videos in this style consistently.

This will make your videos instantly recognizable to your audience and once they know what to expect they will come back constantly.

Now you might have found a video format that you think your audience will love, but how do you get them to watch your video in the first place?

You must hook them in with the right bait.

4. Focus on Your Hook

Fishing for money

Put yourself in the shoes of your average TikTok user.

They tend to scroll through videos looking for something entertaining or useful.

Now, since there are so many options to choose from, they almost never watch a video to the end. What is more likely to happen is they see the first few seconds of a video and if it doesn’t catch their attention they move on.

This means your videos should hook your audience right from the start.

So, how do you do that?

There are two key factors to a great hook:

  • Grab attention
  • Inspire curiosity

In terms of grabbing attention, nothing will kill watch times more than a boring introduction. I’m talking about the first three seconds of your video.

On short videos, you only have a few seconds to interest and inspire your audience to watch more.

That means leaving out any fluff. Don’t introduce yourself or your topic. Instead, turn up the drama in the first few seconds and also imply that there will be a big benefit to your audience.

The secret to finding a benefit your audience truly wants is to understand that people care about themselves.

In other words, your hook should offer them something that they truly want.

And, the more your hook taps into their inner desires the more you’ll have their attention. The deeper the desire you tap into the more likely you are going to grab attention and create desire.

So for instance, if you are selling plumbing services, don’t sell fixed pipes or plumbing services. No one really wants plumbing services.

What do they really want?

A trouble-free home.

Thinking a little deeper about this, they want peace of mind and convenience.

In other words, to hook your audience and generate healthy curiosity, hint at a benefit that taps into one of their deeper desires.

Once you’ve grabbed their attention, don’t give the video away too soon. Instead, tease your audience. Hint to what they will get by watching to the end.

A common way to do this is to promise to reveal something at the end of your video or to start with a curiosity-driven message.

To get this right is to see how other creators have been successful at this. As I mentioned before, you don’t necessarily need to watch every TikTok video to know. Simply start by researching trending videos in your niche.

Do you see anything that instantly grabs your attention? What was it?

Try testing different ideas and always check your data to see what formats actually increased watch times.

Another way to improve your metrics is to get your audience to watch greater portions of your videos.

5. Decrease Video Length to Increase Watch Times

Another way to increase your traffic is to increase the percentage of the video watched. This is especially important when you are just starting out on the platform.

When creating a short video, it’s much easier to grab your audience’s attention and get them to watch to the end of the video.

Simply create shorter videos. I’m talking about between 7 and 30 seconds. Once your audience grows, you can easily create full minute-long content because at that point you know that you have a large audience that regularly views your content.

At this point when you have a dedicated audience, they become interested in your message and want more depth.

Give it to them by creating longer videos.

6. Add a Call to Action

Every video you create should have a call to action. Meaning you should ask your audience to do something.

If you are looking to build up your channel, it makes sense to ask your viewers to subscribe to your channel and check out your other videos.

Now you might think that this will happen automatically without your call to action. And you’d be right in that assumption. But, a percentage of your audience simply won’t if you don’t ask.

And, the more people subscribe to your channel, the more likely they are to binge-watch your content.

Working With TikTok’s Algorithms and the Art of Swimming Down Stream

As you’ve seen, TikTok’s algorithm is finely tuned to its user’s likes and desires. This means the more you can figure out what your audience wants, the better your content will do on TikTok.

Getting this right might take some experimentation, but if your audience hangs out on TikTok regularly, this will be well worth the effort.

Fortunately, you have your own data, analysis, and testing to help you on your way to a massive following.

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